“As we asked ourselves how we could have gotten the story wrong …”
Thus read a Rolling Stone editor’s note attached to a post-mortem story on the false story it published last fall about an alleged gang rape by members of University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.
Such statements extract all the oxygen from the air that serious journalists breathe.
“A Rape on Campus,” which raised flags among other reporters and editors, as well as readers, alleged that “Jackie” went on a date to a fraternity house, where she was raped by seven men while at least one other stood by coaching.
The Washington Post quickly compiled a long list of factual problems. Never mind the simply unbelievable nature of the description. My adult son, who is familiar with Virginia fraternities, sent me the story with the comment: “There’s no way this happened.” It was too incredible and over-the-top. “Statistically,” he said, “there’s no way there are that many sociopaths in one place.” Even drunk? “No way.”
In his note to readers, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana wondered how this could have happened. Was it the process? The people? The fact-checkers? Poor everybody. Let’s start here:
If, as every reporter knows, you’re supposed to check it out if your mother says she loves you, wouldn’t one insist upon an even-higher standard for a stranger with a wild tale?
In a much-belated stab at credibility, the magazine asked the Columbia Journalism School, which dispenses Pulitzer Prizes, to investigate what happened. How about everything? In its 13,000-word report, the school concluded that the entire narrative was “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.”
“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.”
Among those gaps was the writer’s agreement in advance with “Jackie” not to interview any of the seven alleged attackers.
What???? Was Jackie afraid the men would contradict her story? But of course they would have, and this single step would have prompted doubt — always a good wingman in such matters. More important, Sabrina Rubin Erdely would have been left not with a potentially prize-winning expose but a he-said, she-said story that wouldn’t hold up in any American newspaper newsroom.
To be blunt, heads should be rolling at Rolling Stone. This is important not only as partial penance to the accused, the fraternity and the university but also for the sake of all journalists.
Instead, publisher Jann Wenner has said that the episode was an isolated event and that Erdely would continue writing for the magazine. He also essentially blamed the alleged “victim,” Jackie, whom he described as “a really expert fabulist storyteller.” Not very manly, that.
My own theory based on decades of reporting and writing about such issues is that this episode is likely a classic example of willing credulity in the service of The Story, if not evidence of an ideological bent. Erdely was willing to believe the worst about the frat boys because this is part of today’s zeitgeist, especially in the context of rape statistics, which some social scientists have found to be grossly inflated. It seems the writer found a story she was predisposed to believe because it dovetailed with her purposes and, perhaps, with assumptions we’ve seen before, as on the similarly false story of rape by members of the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006.
Erdely’s purpose, though known only to her, is reflected in her decision to reject stories that were less sensational but more easily documented in favor of one that was thinly sourced but certain to grab attention. All reporters try to find the best story they can as a vehicle for a larger discussion. There’s nothing wrong with this — as long as the story is true.
But the collateral damage both to journalism and to women can’t be overstated. Rape victims may be less willing to come forward because of the greater scrutiny justly required; people who rely on journalists to represent the truth as best they can may feel yet again that their trust is misplaced.
The fraternity has announced plans to pursue legal action against Rolling Stone. As difficult as this is for the magazine and Erdely, I personally wish the fraternity the best of luck.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.